Four Perfect Days in Yountville
“Wow!” Stepping onto my second-story terrace, I was awestruck. Hanging in the sky above me was a hot air balloon, so close it seemed I could reach out and touch it. Talk about your wine country welcomes! The cheery orb continued within close sight, sailing in slow motion above the red tile roofs and in and out from behind the big shady trees as I descended the open-air staircase and walked along flower-lined pathways on my way to breakfast at the Villagio Inn & Spa.
This was the first morning of my four-day vacation in Yountville, arguably the most celebrated town in all of California’s wine-drenched Napa Valley. While four days might seem too long to spend in one small town, it’s not when the town is Yountville.
Within just a few blocks, the concentration of gourmet restaurants—Yountville has the most Michelin-star restaurants per capita of any US city—art galleries, wine-tasting shops, boutiques, luxurious accommodations, and ballooning and other activities is truly amazing. There’s even a fabulous dive bar, Pancha’s, left over from when Yountville was a dusty farm town. I’m told it’s where the local chefs and vintners hang out after hours. Best of all, these glorious establishments are within easy walking distance of one another, along tree-shaded streets dotted with contemporary artwork and beautifully restored historic homes and commercial buildings.
I divided my time between two luxurious and very different hotels—both in the heart of town and both on the Condé Nast 2014 Gold List. The Villagio Inn & Spa is the longtime favorite, offering the best of two worlds. Celebrated chef Michael Chiarello’s Bottega restaurant is on site, and famed chef Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bistro and trendy shops and eateries are across the street. Inside the resort’s Mediterranean-styled grounds, you might as well be in Tuscany. Rows of grapevines are visible from the dining area and the sparkling fountains and waterways that flow through the property, surrounded by flowering shrubs and statuary. The rooms are arranged in lushly landscaped two-story villas, reminiscent of an Italian village. My spacious suite featured pale, earthy-toned walls and blonde woods, a fireplace, a whirlpool tub in the marble bath, and garden views from the ironwork balcony. In addition, the 13,000-square-foot Spa Villagio provides the utmost in pampering, including sprawling private spa suites with outdoor pools and fireplaces. Breakfast is equally spectacular with a Champagne Breakfast Buffet served daily.
The Bardessono Hotel, Restaurant & Spa is ultra-modern yet decidedly wine country chic. Built from scratch in 2010 using reclaimed woods and other eco-friendly ingredients, it’s Leed Platinum-certified and includes an organic kitchen garden as part of the landscaping. My luxurious spa suite was minimalist cozy, with a fireplace, living/bedroom opening onto a private garden, and an immense spa bathroom with a soaking tub and hidden built-in massage table for in-room pampering. High-tech amenities include motion-controlled window shutters. The Spa at Bardessono features organic-inspired treatments. A sunny rooftop pool offers vineyard views and the hotel’s Lucy Restaurant & Bar is winning acclaim under executive chef Victor Scargle.
After starting my day with champagne at the Villagio, it was on to chocolate—divine, handcrafted confections from Kollar Chocolates in the nearby V Marketplace. I watched through the show kitchen window as savory chef-turned-chocolatier Chris Kollar intently cut freshly made red wine chocolate into tiny squares, then coated each with a rosy glaze. Working in small batches, Kollar uses local ingredients and European-influenced techniques to craft delicacies including lavender and wine truffles. I bought six salted caramel truffles—heavenly—and then hit the shops. Built in 1870 as the Groezinger Winery, the V Marketplace repurposed the two-story red brick building into a labyrinth of stylish boutiques and galleries. In the North Bay Gallery, I bought a darling pair of gold earrings by Holly Yashi and a Swarovski crystal pendant (each less than $50) and admired the gorgeous glass art by Frogman and other talents.
The kitchen garden of culinary genius Thomas Keller was up next, which grows across the street from his Michelin three-star restaurant The French Laundry for all to see. Visitors are welcome to stroll along the grassy paths, through its acres of world-class herbs and veggies. I passed lush ice lettuce, artichokes, eggplant, three types of basil, white strawberries, and succulent heirloom tomatoes, all destined for the menus of the French Laundry and my next stop, Bouchon Bistro.
While it’s not the French Laundry (nearly year-out reservations are needed), Keller’s award-winning Bouchon is like a bit of Paris in Yountville. Antique fixtures, a mosaic floor, and a mural by French artist Paulin Paris provide an authentic backdrop for classic French bistro fare. I chose the Salade de Betteraves, an innovative mix of marinated beets, pickled grapes, hazelnuts, and pearl onions, followed by an unbelievably delicious Croque Madame—a grilled ham and cheese sandwich on brioche with a fried egg and sauce Mornay. Then, as if I needed it, I went next door to Bouchon Bakery for an aptly named, “O-noyoudidn’t” chocolate-dipped espresso macaron. Still not finished with my Keller fix, I walked around the corner to Finesse, The Store, Keller’s first foray into retail, where I bought a wooden ladle stamped with the chef’s signature pig.
In the evening, I switched to Italian. Dinner at acclaimed chef Richard Reddington’s pizzeria Redd Wood was as good as the accolades say. The mains range from Akaushi rib eye to quail and house-made pastas, but I stayed with his signature wood-fired pizzas. Handcrafted from seasonal ingredients, my choice featured prosciutto crudo, fontina, arugala, gran padano cheese, and black pepper. I also ordered an irresistible side of grilled organic squash, ricotta salata, and Sicilian lemon oil. Foodie heaven!
The second day dawned with me soaring over town in that big, beautiful hot air balloon. As the vineyards and beautiful estate homes passed below, owner Jay Kimball, who shares his time between Yountville and San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, pointed out whose estate was whose and related decades-old gossip of parties in the mansions.
Born and raised in Yountville, Kimball bought a hot air balloon more than 30 years ago just for fun. He began taking up friends and voilà, Napa Valley Aloft, the region’s first hot air balloon tour company, was born. The awesome ride ended with an awesome American breakfast—a fully loaded omelet and the best hash browns I’ve ever eaten—at the Pacific Blues Café, a local favorite diner in Yountville’s former train depot.
I didn’t even have to leave town to blend my own wine—and get cooking tips from a noted cookbook author. The V Wine Cellar (in the V Marketplace) offers mini wine blending seminars for individuals and groups by appointment. Using laboratory-style glass vials, I measured and poured a mixture of Bordeaux varietals, then designed my own label with a pen and blank white stick-on paper, and came away with a bottle of my very own wine. Turns out I like equal parts Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot, with a splash of Merlot. Next I walked over to NapaStyle, a foodie and home décor boutique and demonstration kitchen, and learned the recipe secrets of Australian chef Sally James. Her cooking demo is part of the boutique’s ongoing culinary program featuring noted local chefs and vintners.
A bubbling brook and footbridge greeted me that evening, as I walked through the beautiful gardens to Etoile at Domaine Chandon, the valley’s only fine dining restaurant within a winery. This was the first time I’d driven since arriving in Yountville. But the five-minute ride was well worth the picturesque setting, ultra-white glove service, and exquisite menu. A bubbly pink Reserve Pinot Noir Rosé sparkling wine (the winery’s founders are linked to the French Chandon sparkling wine heritage) was a charming opener to the innovative Chef’s Six Course Tasting Menu. The meal was amazing, from the Maine dayboat scallops, served with 2008 Chandon Yountville Vintage Brut, and the green garlic gnocchi and butter-poached egg yolk paired with Red Car “Ritchie” Chardonnay to the Brie brûlée caraway financier with heirloom beet purée.
Art and wine were the theme of day three, punctuated by the gourmet micro-regional Italian cuisine at celebrity chef Michael Chiaretto’s award-winning Bottega restaurant. His longtime staff members were as delightful as the cuisine, making recommendations and sharing stories. I started with their recommended Il Piattodi Salumi e Formaggi including house-cured prosciutto, Tuscan and Calabrian salumi, and vine-dried raisins, and then the Farfalle al Granchio e Piselli—hand-shaped butterfly pasta with Peekytoe crab, English peas, and vermouth crema and Bottarga gremolata. Both were sensational!
Rotating art exhibits paired well with wine tasting at the Jessup Cellars Tasting Gallery across from Villagio. A few blocks away, the inviting sculpture garden and 1904 stone building of Ma(i)sonry Napa Valley charmed with fanciful artwork—think life-size bronzes of dancing sheep—and select wines from a variety of area vineyards. Sitting on a leather couch in the upstairs gallery sipping a vibrant Blackbird Vineyards Arriviste Rosé as sunlight through the big turn-of-the-century windows illuminated the eclectic art, I decided this was how I want to spend all my afternoons.
Sipping an aperitif at a high-top table in the sleek bar area of Bardessono’s Lucy Restaurant & Bar was the beginning of my final Yountville evening. Like everything in this eco-centric oasis, Lucy’s food revolves around nature—what’s in season in the adjacent kitchen garden acreage. Lucky for me, the giaquinta tomatoes were ripe and paired with the house-pulled mozzarella drizzled with apple balsamic. Cayucos abalone—a usually scarce commodity—was fresh from the sea, with grilled onions and k&j apricots, followed by Watson milk-fed lamb, fried green tomatoes, long beans, and mint gremolata.
Day four found me staring at a table set with jars of jellybeans, chocolate, dirt, blackberries, and other food and non-food products. I was at Bell Wine Cellars—the second short drive of my time in Yountville (and the first leg of my drive back to Los Angeles)—taking the Sensory Training course. “Ever wonder how the experts detect aromas and flavors in the wine?” Sandra Bell, co-owner with her husband, Anthony, asked. I soon found out, by swirling and sniffing Bell’s artisan wines and comparing the bouquet and flavor to the foodstuff in the jars. I was amazed. After comparison sniffs, I was able to recognize various flavors—chocolate and earthy dirt especially—in the course’s blind tasting. It was a fitting finale for my splendid four-day adventure.